I haven't slept well the last few nights. Many of my friends, colleagues, and coworkers report the same.
We end each day with the news that the stock market is tumbling. The number of coronavirus cases is increasing. The reach of the virus is spreading. And it's creating a kind of preemptive hysteria.
I'm hearing things like, "Nobody's going to be on planes once a majority of Americans have this." Or "the supply chain is going to get so screwed up by this that a recession is inevitable."
This might be true. And it might not. When we look deeper, however, at the root of these thoughts, it's clear that they're the inevitable manifestation of what neuroscientists call the "negativity bias" of the brain. The fact is that we're wired to think this way. It's an evolutionary trait that served us well while living on the savanna thousands of years ago.
And yet this inclination toward catastrophizing and worst-case scenario thinking becomes especially problematic in times like this. It causes us to lose our focus on work and the things that matter most. It causes us to get hooked by this collective experience of freaking out.
So how can we experience a bit more mental peace and sanity in the midst of what might be a looming public health crisis? Here are three time-tested mindset shifts.
1. Let go of the illusion of control.
Fear sparks a deep desire to be in control. But, in this case, that's nearly impossible. And so we do all sorts of strange things to make us feel some modicum of control, things like obsessively tracking the news or ruminating on it constantly in our own minds. These unskillful tactics offer an illusion of control. But they're just that-- an illusion.
Ironically, most ancient wisdom traditions argue that inner peace comes not from control, but from letting go of this illusion. When we acknowledge that the fluctuations of the market, the timing of the next recession, or the spread of the coronavirus is out of our control, we let go of our subconscious need to manage the complex flow of global events. We feel a bit more at peace.
2. Be here now.
Harvard psychologists have found that, even in the best of times, we spend around 47 percent of our day "mind wandering," lost in thoughts about the past or the future. This condition intensifies in moments of crisis. When faced with real fear, we begin to live completely outside of the present moment. We instead live inside of future scenarios, mental nightmares that hijack our attention and take a huge toll on our mental and emotional well-being.
There is a simple antidote to this destructive pattern. It may sound cliché. But it may also be the most powerful thing you can do. Be here now. Shift your attention from these mental daydreams about a future that doesn't exist to what actually does exist: this moment. The sound of the birds. The sun rising. The royal blue sky. The sensation of each breath. The important work project in front of you.
3. Accept reality as it is.
As I hear people talking about the coronavirus and as I watch my own thoughts about it, I see a flawed assumption coming up again and again: "this shouldn't be happening." The market shouldn't be falling. The number of coronavirus cases shouldn't be increasing. It's an underlying belief that puts us at war with reality. Because, right now, whether we like it or not, these things are happening. And there's a direct correlation between the intensity of our resistance to this reality and the amount of suffering we experience.
More resistance, more suffering. Less resistance, less suffering.
The antidote to this ordinary trap of the mind is to become aware of when you are fighting the reality of global and macro economic events. Notice the emotions and reactions that happen in your mind and body. And then, see what would happen if you lived according to a radically alternative belief, something more like, "I'm okay with what happens." This doesn't mean you're rooting for the economy to fail or for your fellow citizens or even yourself to get sick. This just means you're no longer in opposition to reality as it is. It means your more available to find peace because you're accepting what's actually happening.
These tools aren't designed to make you feel ecstatic bliss in the midst of crisis. They also probably won't get rid of anxiety, worry, irritation, and fear. Instead, they're designed to help you experience this challenging moment with greater peace and clarity.